Parliament in Perspective 3rd October 2014

No sooner was the Scottish Referendum over than MPs of all colours decamped for the party conferences, Catherine Paice reports.

It is a critical time for the rallying of the party stalwarts, as voters start to deliberate their post-referendum options ahead of the General Election next May. UK farmers’ contribution to the economy has grown by £2.34 billion, more than a third, in the five years to 2013. Farm output is up 31% to £25.72 billion.

As far as votes are concerned, there’s more to it than just voter numbers. It’s not just that the rural vote has got a bit more important again – farmers own or host more than half Britain’s 5GW of solar power capacity, for example, and meat/animal products now account for 15% of the UK’s total food and drink exports (the loss of Scotland and its whisky industry would have left England and Wales with a devastating deficit). It’s that food production and, more importantly, environmental management, is now firmly on the agenda for every voter.

Almost three-quarters of farmers surveyed in the latest NFU annual confidence survey thought regulation and legislation would be most likely to have a negative impact on their businesses, with 68% citing costs and 50% CAP implementation. The common ground between growers and regulators and the population at large is the cited desire to increase UK food production with fewer inputs and better care for the environment. It will be up to each party to convince the industry that they are best equipped to do that, now UK food self-sufficiency is just 60%, down from 75% in 1991.

The Labour Party was first over the line, pledging a long-term strategy to “protect farming standards” for British farmers if it wins next year’s General Election. Shadow farm minister Huw Irranca-Davies (Lab, Ogmore) promised, during a fringe debate organised by the NFU, to shake the dust off Labour’s Food 2030 national strategy document and said he wanted to think “long term”. Competition for land and water, declining productivity and pressures on the environment all had to be addressed, he said.

Mr Irranca-Davies, turning a conveniently blind eye to plummeting commodity prices, said now was a “golden opportunity” for farming in England, but this would involve “rethinking the way we do agriculture”. Quality, rather than quantity, seems to be the broad message. Labour has also pledged to hike the national miminum wage to at least £8/hour by 2020.

In other fringe meetings, farmers and animal rights activists clashed over the ongoing pilot badger culls in the South-West. Cheshire dairy farmer Phil Latham took the flack after showing an emotional video of the impact of TB on his farm. Cheshire vet Den Leonard suggested the activities of protesters in the cull zones were actually contributing to the spread of TB. They were largely drowned out by protests about the pointlessness and waste of money of the cull.

The Conservative Party conference was being held as Farm Business went to press, and the Lib Dems’ is scheduled for 4th-8th October.

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